DISCLAIMER: The majority of the characters belong to the series Bad Girls. I don't own them but I sure do like them, especially Helen Stewart and Nikki Wade. Bad Girls was created by Maureen Chadwick, Eileen Gallagher and Ann McManus. All characters from the series are the property of Shed Productions.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The rest of the characters are mine. Please do not 'borrow' or use them without permission of the author. This story picks up immediately after Series 3, Chapter 16 "Coming Out".
THANK YOU: A very special 'thank you' to my extraordinary beta Steff for all your input and help.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
"Nikki, why won't you tell me where we're going!" Helen pouted. When the taxi collected them from the restaurant, Nikki had given him directions in a low voice, insisting that she wanted their final destination to be a surprise.
Nikki stifled a grin at Helen's obvious discomfort. She knew that Helen liked to be in control and was not a big fan of surprises. The night she had shown up at her flat unannounced, the younger woman's first reaction to her unexpected visit had been to slam a door in her face.
"Not much longer. We're almost there."
A few minutes later the taxi turned down a quiet tree-lined avenue and pulled to a stop in front of an elegant five story detached Townhouse. A discreet brass plaque beside the entrance read 'The Abbey Hotel'.
Helen looked at her partner in stunned amazement. "Nikki, this is too much." She was becoming slightly uncomfortable at the amount of money Nikki was spending on her. Abbey Court, one of London's luxury hotels, catered to guests who liked having the facilities of a large hotel in combination with the personal touches, comfort and hospitality of a private home.
"I promised to show you a good time, remember?" Nikki's voice was sultry, her eyes as they rested on Helen, possessive and filled with expectation.
Helen smiled, the dimple at the right corner of her mouth making an appearance. "I remember." Nikki had made that promise to her following a lifer's meeting. The conversation was memorable not just because of the few moments of privacy they'd been afforded, but also because it had taken place during one of the infrequent times they'd been in perfect harmony with one another.
"But that's not the only thing you promised me. Something about 'satisfying my every wish' tonight." Nikki gulped at the hungry look that accompanied Helen's words.
The atmosphere was charged with sexual tension and both women were quiet as they checked in and climbed the stairs to their room. The bellman opened the door for them, deposited the small bag that Nikki had collected from the concierge when they checked in, received his tip, and departed with a cheery "Enjoy your stay, ladies and if there's anything you need, just let us know."
Helen took in every detail of the room. Pale peach wallpaper covered the walls. An enormous four poster bed filled one end of the room, its floral canopy almost touching the ceiling. A matching peach and white floral duvet covered the bed. Identical club chairs in sage green were placed side by side under a bay window. A bottle of champagne with two crystal flutes and a box of Belgian chocolates sat on the table between them. Peeking into the ensuite marble bathroom Helen noticed a Jacuzzi. A crystal vase held a dozen red roses.
Helen was touched at the lengths Nikki had gone to to provide them with the perfect romantic environment. Turning to the taller woman who was quietly watching, an uncertain expression on her face, she said, "it's wonderful, sweetheart. I thought you said you didn't do 'soppy'."
"My exact words, you may remember were 'usually, I don't do soppy.'" She ducked her head in what could only be described as shyness. Looking up, she added, "I want tonight to be perfect, Helen."
"Well it will be as soon as I get out of these shoes." Her feet had been killing her since the restaurant. Helen hobbled towards the chairs. Collapsing in the nearest one she removed the offending footwear, exhaling in satisfaction, and wiggling her toes.
Looking up, she grinned at Nikki. "They may look attractive but they sure aren't very comfortable."
Nikki silently agreed with Helen's assessment. The shoes were incredibly sexy and showed off Helen's legs to advantage, but practical they clearly were not. Sinking into the adjacent chair, Nikki patted her lap. "Give 'em here. Let's see if we can't make you feel better."
Helen looked at her quizzically. "Really?"
"Come on." Glancing about, Nikki spotted some lotion in the adjacent bath. "I see something that might help. Sit tight."
Helen barely had time to register that Nikki had gone before she was back, bottle in hand. Examining the bottle, Nikki noted, "peppermint. Very nice." Squirting the lotion into her palm, Nikki began applying it to Helen's feet.
Closing her eyes, Helen delighted in the sensation Nikki's soothing touches were evoking. "That feels wonderful."
Studying her lover's feet, Nikki said, "Helen, I think you have some blisters." She gentled her caresses. "Why did you wear these shoes anyway?"
Helen looked up, startled. Then blushing, she said, "I wore them for you."
Nikki stopped her motion and looked at Helen. "For me?" she repeated.
Helen nodded. "The whole outfit actually. I bought it for you ages ago. I wanted to have something special to wear the first time we went out." She winced in pain as Nikki touched a particularly tender spot. "I don't think I'll wear them on our next date though. Hope you don't mind."
Nikki was chuffed, both at the fact that Helen had selected clothes just for her and the implications of future dates. Pulling the nearest foot to her mouth, she kissed Helen's toes, taking one into her mouth and sucking gently. Almost immediately she regretted her decision. "Ugh."
Helen snatched her foot away, irritation in her expression. "Thanks a lot."
"Sorry love. It's not you." She eyed the lotion bottle with disgust. "This stuff may smell like peppermint but it definitely does not taste like it." Nikki wiped the back of her hand over her mouth roughly, trying to remove any lotion still clinging to her lips.
"Well let's see if we can't get the bad taste out of your mouth," Helen said flirtatiously. Opening the box of chocolates and selecting one, she lifted it to her lips and sunk her teeth into one of the sweets, evenly dividing it into two halves. "Mmm", she smiled, savoring the treat. Then taking the other half in her teeth, she lifted her face and offered it to Nikki from her mouth. Nikki accepted the gift and they half-kissed and half-ate the pungent chocolate. Two more chocolates followed and by then they were kissing in earnest.
Helen couldn't get enough of Nikki. Both women were leaning into each other so closely that Helen was almost in Nikki's lap. Helen entangled her hands in the curls at the base of Nikki's neck, and pressed her body tightly against the other woman. At first Nikki returned the kiss hungrily, but then suddenly Helen felt her withdraw.
Helen pulled back and studied Nikki closely. Fear and hesitation were reflected in the brown eyes gazing back at her. "What is it? What's the matter?"
"Are you sure?" Nikki's voice was hoarse and uncertain. During the entire time they'd known each other, Nikki had driven the relationship, pushing Helen to admit her attraction to Nikki, to jilt her fiancé, to break the rules, to be with Nikki. She'd pushed so hard that eventually she'd pushed Helen away. Now everything she wanted was within reach and she was suddenly terrified that it would all be taken away from her.
Looking into Nikki's soulful brown eyes, Helen heard the unasked questions. Are you comfortable with being a lesbian? Why did you break it off with me? Will you leave me for a man? Do you love me enough to make a life with me? Is this really what you want?
Helen struggled to voice her feelings something that was very difficult for her to do when her own emotions were the topic. Taking a deep breath, Helen knelt down at Nikki's feet and took her hands in hers.
"Nikki, I know I've hurt you many times this past year. I'm sorry, sweetheart. I should have told you before now." Taking a deep breath, Helen continued. "It was so hard to be together after your escape, to hide my feelings for you and pretend that I didn't care. The riot was the last straw. I felt so betrayed; like you were not only rejecting me and what I hoped to accomplish, but that you were throwing away our chance to be together by jeopardizing your appeal." She paused, searching to find the right words. "You hurt me Nikki, and for a while I channeled that pain into anger. By the time I realized it and was trying to figure out a way to make things right between us you had taken up with Caroline Lewis." She looked up at Nikki, trying to gauge the effect her words were having.
"Because you broke it off with me. You said you weren't even sorry." Tears welled up in Nikki's eyes, remembering Helen's words and how hurt she'd been. She'd turned to Caroline, a pretty blonde inmate after Helen's rejection. What a colossal error in judgment that had been. Caroline was at Larkhall not for embezzlement as she'd told Nikki, but for sexual exploitation of children. When that had come out, she'd nearly been killed by the other prisoners.
"I know. I know. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it." Helen said, tears welling in her own eyes. Wiping them away with a backhanded swipe, she continued. "I've been lying to myself a lot this past year. When I finally decided to be honest, I realized that all I ever wanted was you. When I saw you with Caroline, all I wanted was you. When I was with Thomas, all I wanted was you." She reached up and stroked the side of Nikki's face, green eyes searching brown intently. "All I want, Nikki, is you."
Nikki's expression changed from fear of rejection to one of hope. "Do you mean that?" she asked.
"Of course I do. I love you so much, Nikki. No man has ever made me feel what a woman has what you have. Frankly it scares the hell out of me." She smiled tenderly at Nikki. "I hope this feeling, the feeling you bring out in me never fades." Helen's expression was earnest, her eyes begging Nikki to believe her words. "I know we promised to take things slowly, but I don't want or need to take things slow, Nikki. If you'll have me, I want to spend the next forty or fifty years showing you just how sorry I am for ever hurting you and how much I love you."
Nikki's smile transformed her. Hearing Helen's heartfelt words it was like a weight had lifted from her shoulders. "Oh Helen, you're all I want. Everything I want."
Reaching down, Nikki pulled the younger woman to her feet and onto her lap. "I love you, Helen Stewart. Don't ever doubt it. And I'm sorry too for my jealousy for not trusting you for doubting that I'd ever get out of Larkhall. For every time I've hurt you." Helen's mouth was too near to avoid temptation. Nikki kissed her, deepening the kiss as Helen made a soft squeak of pleasure. For a few moments they stayed like that, enjoying the heady feelings from the kiss. Helen was the first to break away. Her lips were swollen and her pupils dilated.
"Are we okay?" she asked.
Nikki seemed to have lost interest in conversation. "We're fine." She absentmindedly tucked a strand of Helen's hair behind one ear. "You know, I can think of a dozen or so better uses for my gob right now than talking," she said, nuzzling Helen's neck and tracing a path with her tongue to Helen's ear, causing the younger woman to shiver with pleasure.
"Can you now?" came the flirtatious reply. Throwing Nikki a smoldering look, she got to her feet. "Why don't you open the champagne while I 'slip into something more comfortable'?" The last was tossed over her shoulder as bag in hand, she disappeared into the bathroom.
Grinning at Helen's remark, Nikki did just that. When the wine was chilling, Nikki stripped to her knickers and donned one of the silk hotel robes. Dimmed lights, soft music and a turned down bed awaited Helen when she stepped from the bathroom.
Nikki's breath caught in her throat. Helen looked magnificent in the soft light and she fully approved of Helen's choice of nightie. It definitely showed her cleavage to full advantage. Holding out a hand, her voice sultry, she invited, "come here, darling. Let me show you the full benefits of the taking things slow plan."
Helen moved back into Nikki's arms as if she'd never left them. Wrapping her arms around the taller woman's neck, she settled her lips against Nikki's. Helen's kisses were gentle, teasing and tantalizing, leaving Nikki hungry for more. When they separated, the dark-haired woman felt drugged.
"You taste incredible," she breathed, inches from Helen's bruised lips. Nikki loved kissing Helen. There was something almost intoxicating about it.
"So do you." A delicious lassitude had claimed Helen. Her limbs felt heavy and she wasn't sure that her legs would continue to support her weight much longer.
Fortunately, Nikki solved that potential dilemma by pulling her toward the four poster bed. Propping herself against the collection of throw pillows resting along the headboard, she settled back, curling her hands around the younger woman's waist. Helen rested on her knees, straddling Nikki's waist. Nikki lowered the strap of Helen's silk nightie, revealing her soft globes. She cupped a breast in her hand, her thumbs brushing over the erect nipple.
Nikki closed her eyes momentarily in appreciation, savoring the sensations of Helen's breasts, her soft skin against her hands. She shifted her attention to Helen's neck, kissing a path downward where her mouth replaced her hands. She took one of Helen's breasts in her mouth, her breath hot, as she blew softly on the hardening nipple before taking it into her mouth and sucking lustily.
Helen moaned, folding her arms around Nikki's head, urging her to repeat the sensations, with soft, wondrous, sounds of appreciation. Arousal was coursing through her body like molten lava.
Nikki left no inch of Helen's frame untouched. Her hands, mouth and tongue seemed to be everywhere as she reacquainted herself with her lover's body. Nikki delighted in the sounds that Helen made, the breathy catches in her throat as Nikki covered her with sensuous kisses. Helen didn't think she could get enough of Nikki's skin on hers. She gave herself completely to Nikki, exulting in their love-making; in their intimacy. Unlike their first time together there was no urgency; they had all the time in the world.
The rest of the night was a blur of love and passion. Helen showed Nikki's body the same concentration she'd displayed with her dinner, and Nikki made good on all her promises to Helen. Exhausted, they fell asleep just as the sun was coming up.
They were twenty minutes late for their lunch with Monica, not because they had a lie in (which they did) or because of the inventive ways they'd enjoyed their breakfast of strawberries and cream, or even because they'd shared a long bath in the Jacuzzi, but because they had to buy Helen new shoes. Although Nikki had the foresight to have a bag with a change of clothing for each of them delivered to the hotel concierge the previous day, she'd failed to include footwear. While touched by Nikki's thoughtful gesture, Helen nonetheless refused to subject her feet to another bout with the pink sandals.
Monica, used to 'Helen time' as she called it, had ordered a drink and was placidly waiting for them to arrive. She sprang to her feet, her facing lighting up, as they joined her at the table.
As Helen had predicted, once over her initial surprise at their news, she'd announced that she was 'thrilled' for them both. They filled in the missing details during lunch. Monica knew that Helen had helped Nikki with her appeal and that she was one of the reasons Helen had returned to Larkhall as a prison services professional, working with the lifers after her abrupt resignation as Wing Governor. At the time, Monica had chalked up Helen's enthusiasm for Nikki's appeal to her burning desire to right injustice. Now, when she fully understood the true nature of that enthusiasm she asked herself why she hadn't seen it all along.
While Monica had been startled at the idea of Helen and Nikki as a couple, she quickly realized they were perfect for each other. Both women were supportive, passionate, caring, intelligent, stubborn, strong and independent. They both had tempers, but where Nikki was more volatile, all fire and passion, Helen was generally more measured in her actions, usually putting reason before impulsive acts. Where Helen held her emotions close to her chest, Nikki often wore hers on her sleeve. Their personalities tempered one another beautifully. Monica had never seen Helen looking so happy. She was positively beaming, as was Nikki.
As they lingered over coffee and pudding, Monica reached for her purse. "I don't want to forget to give you this," she said, pulling out a gaily wrapped package and setting it in front of Helen, "since I won't be able to make it on Saturday." Almost before the words were out of her mouth, she realized what she'd said. "Oh Helen, I am so sorry. I've spoiled the surprise."
The smile that had been on Helen's face when Monica handed her the present vanished. Her brow furrowed and her eyes narrowed, clear signs that she was displeased. "What surprise? Don't tell me they're planning a party!" Irritation was evident from both her tone and her expression.
Several of Helen's friends had been trying to talk her into a big bash for her upcoming birthday for months. Despite her insistence that she did not want a party, Monica's guilty expression seemed to confirm her worst fears.
"Yes," the older woman admitted. Day after tomorrow."
"Damn it! I told Claire in no uncertain terms that I did not want a party. I don't care if it is 'a milestone birthday' to quote my so-called friends." Helen was scowling furiously, thunder clouds gathering.
Nikki was perplexed. Helen was rapidly working up to a furious eruption. Granted, her girlfriend hated surprises, but a birthday party hardly seemed worthy of such a reaction.
Attempting to divert Hurricane Helen and rescue a chagrined Monica, Nikki spoke up. "So when is the big day and how old are you going to be?"
"July 7th. Thirty," came the curt reply. "I do not believe this," she said, continuing her rant. "Claire knows how I feel about my birthday. I'm going to strangle her."
Nikki was dumbfounded. She always assumed that they were about the same age, thirty-five. On one occasion when meeting with Claire about her appeal she had managed to turn the conversation around to Helen. Claire mentioned that after graduating university Helen had been on a fast track with the Home Office. She must have been on a fast track indeed to make Wing Governor before her thirtieth birthday. It was small wonder that her innovative ideas about prison reform had met with such resistance from the 'good old boys' network. To them, she must have seemed like a willful child who refused to follow the advice of the older, wiser, men around her.
Monica was wearing a distressed expression, clearly upset at spilling the beans. When Claire had called to tell her about the party it had not occurred to her that Helen was not on board with the idea.
Helen was still muttering under her breath, a mutinous look on her face. Nikki caught the words 'soddin' friends' and 'stupid traditions'. Once again she tried to pacify Helen by entering the fray.
"Helen, take it easy. I know you're not a big fan of surprises but it's not the end of the world is it that your mates want to throw you a party? After all, the first time a woman turns 30 is something to celebrate innit?" Her tone was light and teasing.
"My age has nothing to do with this." Helen snapped.
"Well if it's about our plans to spend Saturday together, don't let me stand in the way. I can meet your friends another time if you'd like." Nikki's mind had now jumped to the conclusion that Helen was probably having second thoughts about introducing her to her friends as her partner. "Or not at all, if you'd rather," she added.
Her statement triggered a jarringly unexpected reaction. Nikki had pushed one of Helen's buttons one that she was unaware even existed and Helen now unleashed the anger that had been building on her girlfriend. "Damn it, Nikki, I don't believe you just said that." She was absolutely incensed that Nikki once again doubted her commitment to her. "Everything doesn't concern you. Believe it or not, I had a complete life before I met you!"
Helen reached for her mobile and began furiously punching in numbers. "Claire," she began without preamble, "what's this I hear about a birthday party?" Her expression, already a thundercloud, got even darker at her friend's response. "I am not being unreasonable! Yes, I know it's been ten years and no I don't agree that 'it's time to move on'. You know how I feel." She listened for a few moments. "Don't you dare tell me what Ian would want!" she practically shouted into the phone. Then, realizing that her raised voice was attracting attention from the other diners, she muttered "excuse me" and exited the table, leaving behind an uncomfortable Monica and a miserable and confused Nikki.
Nikki was the first to break the awkward silence. "Well, I guess I know where I stand." Her voice had taken on an edge, one that Monica recognized all too well. Nikki adopted that tone when she was hurting deeply and she was trying to protect herself from further pain. "I just don't know when to keep my gob shut and stay out of trouble."
Monica reached out a comforting hand. "Nikki, Helen's reaction has nothing to do with you."
"So she told me in no uncertain terms."
"Words said in anger. I know she didn't mean it."
"Riii ght," came the sarcastic reply.
"Nikki, stop feeling sorry for yourself this instant!" Monica had spent over 35 years dealing with the demands and needs of a child with Down's syndrome. Both the practiced authority in her tone and the stern look she directed at Nikki spoke volumes.
Gentling her inflection, she tried again. "How much have you and Helen talked about your families?"
The question caught Nikki off-guard and she paused for a minute before answering. "Not very much. I think she mentioned once that her dad is a minister. I got the impression that he didn't approve of much of what Helen did. He definitely wasn't happy with her career choice."
Yesterday she'd speculated about Helen's dad and potential reactions to the news that his daughter had acquired not only a female lover but one with the distinction of being known as 'the cop-killing lesbian' and who had served four years for manslaughter with Helen as her jailer. Now after Helen's outburst she doubted that it would be an issue since she'd probably never meet the man.
"I take it then that you don't know about Ian," Monica said.
'Who's Ian?' Nikki wondered. One of Helen's former boyfriends? She shook her head 'no'.
"You need to ask Helen about Ian, Nikki. I think when you two talk this through it will all be much clearer to you why she is behaving the way she is."
Nikki was feeling sorry for herself and in no mood for this latest mystery involving Helen and yet another man. "You have more faith than I do that she's even going to want to talk to me about it," she said in a flat voice. Their perfect day on Wednesday - the shared experiences, heartfelt conversation, joyful loving, and newly discovered intimacies now seemed like a distant memory.
Monica sighed in exasperation. Although she loved both Nikki and Helen like daughters, there were times when she wanted to throttle one or both of them, and today was turning out to be just such an occasion. Both women had suffered loss and rejection from their nuclear family at impressionable ages and those experiences had carried over into their adult lives. As a result, Nikki had a tendency to assume the worst of people she cared about, usually leaping to the wrong conclusion while automatically expecting rejection. Helen held things inside, preferring to avoid rather than confront her feelings, especially when things she cared deeply about were involved.
"Nikki, to paraphrase something you once told me, you should be bloody ashamed of yourself for what you're thinking. I've sat here for several hours listening to the two of you talk about yourselves and your plans. More importantly I've watched you both you watching Helen and Helen watching you. She loves you Nikki. I know that in the past the people you loved and who were supposed to love you unconditionally let you down but surely someone you cared about has said unkind things that you've forgiven them for. That's one of our worst traits as human beings saying hurtful things to those we're supposed to be closest to." She studied Nikki carefully to see if her words were getting through that sometimes thick skull.
Abruptly, Nikki got to her feet.
"You're not going to run are you; not without giving Helen a chance to explain?" Monica now looked worried.
"No. I just need a fag. I'll be back." She'd listen to whatever Helen had to say and would try to do it with an open mind. Try as she might, she was at a loss as to what role Ian played in this drama or why Helen was so upset about a simple birthday party.
While Nikki was gone from the table, Helen returned. She looked at the empty chair beside hers and then at Monica.
"Where's Nikki?" Her voice held concern and a hint of fear that the other woman had walked out on her.
"She's gone out for a smoke." The older woman fixed her with a stern look. "Don't you think you overreacted just a little bit?"
Monica raised an eyebrow at her incredulously.
Helen sighed heavily. "I overreacted a whole lot," she admitted.
"You owe Nikki an explanation," Monica told her.
"You're right." Helen sighed again. "It's hard, Monica. I don't like thinking about it, let alone discussing it." She looked pensive. "You know that."
Monica nodded, and then, in her best surrogate mother fashion said, "Helen, I've told Nikki this before and now I'm telling you. You don't have to deal with everything by yourself, always going it alone. You two love each other. That means sharing all of it both the good and the bad." She leaned across the table and covered Helen's hand with her own. "Let her in," she urged.
"Am I interrupting something?" Nikki had returned.
"No, of course not." Helen, fighting tears, looked up at Nikki. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart. I can't believe what I said to you. I didn't mean it the way it came out. Of course you're an important part of my life. Please forgive me?"
Seeing the tears welling in Helen's eyes, Nikki was more confused than ever, but she could tell that whatever was at the bottom of Helen's outburst was causing her great pain. Looking at the misery reflected in Helen's face, Nikki let go of her anger and squeezed Helen's shoulders reassuringly as she took her seat.
"It's all right, Helen. We'll sort it out."
They'd left Monica with a promise to get together following her return from Cornwall. Over lunch she tried to convince Nikki to come to work with her at one of the halfway houses and when she learned about Helen's most recent resignation from Larkhall she had been relentless in her efforts to persuade Helen to join her as well. Neither would commit but they did agree to keep an open mind until their next meeting.
Both women were silent during the ride to Helen's, each pensive and uncertain how to fix the fissures that had developed in their relationship. The weather, as if echoing their mood, had turned. Formerly blue skies were now gray and sheets of rain pummeled the taxi. By the time they reached Helen's and got inside the flat, they were both soaked through.
"How 'bout I make some tea to warm us up?" Helen suggested. "Or would you prefer a hot bath?"
"No, tea's fine," Nikki replied politely. "I think I'll grab a towel and dry my hair then change out of these wet things though. Do you need anything?"
"No, thank you."
While Nikki was in the bathroom, Helen reflected on her outburst in the restaurant. The two of them had been walking on eggshells with each other since and she had no one but herself to blame. She knew that she owed Nikki an explanation. She also knew that talking about Ian wasn't something that ever came easy for her.
When Nikki came out of the loo, she could hear Helen pottering around in the kitchen. She headed into the lounge. On the two previous occasions Nikki had been in this room, she'd had neither the desire nor the opportunity to look around. Curious, she checked out the books and cds on the shelves, noticing that she and Helen had shared tastes in several authors and that both of them liked jazz. Several framed photographs were tucked in amongst the books and jewel cases. Picking up one that featured Helen and a group of friends in caps and gowns, she recognized Claire Walker with an arm around Helen's neck and wearing a deliberately goofy expression. Smiling at a side of Claire she had never seen, Nikki returned the photo to the shelf.
Running her eyes over the rest of the photos, she was intrigued by one of a much younger Helen with a handsome bloke in a football uniform. Helen's gaze was focused on her companion and her look was one of pure adoration bordering on worship. The man on the other hand was laughing into the camera, wide hazel eyes sparkling, as he held up one finger. From the looks of him, it appeared the photo had been snapped after a game; his uniform was dirty in places and his brown hair untidy and damp. Unbidden, Nikki's jealous streak surfaced and she fought the urge to throw the picture to the ground and stomp on the handsome face until the cocky grin was obliterated.
"That's my brother Ian." Helen's low voice startled Nikki who spun around.
Helen stood in the doorway, the tea tray in her hands. The smile that Helen usually wore had vanished completely and the bright light typically present in Helen's eyes was barely a flicker. Nikki thought she looked lost. No, Nikki mentally corrected, vulnerable. From Helen's defensive posture Nikki could tell that she was trying to protect herself from the inevitable discussion.
Glancing down at the picture she was holding, Nikki was surprised she hadn't immediately spotted the resemblance. Ian and Helen Stewart shared the same spectacular smile. Both had chestnut hair and similar features. From his expression, she'd bet that like his sister, Ian had an infectious personality. His image radiated confidence and charisma.
When she looked up again, Nikki noticed Helen had not moved from the doorway. She was gripping the tea tray so tightly that her knuckles were white.
Despite having a volatile personality and quick temper, Nikki had always been mature beyond her years. Out of necessity she had grown up quickly - forming her own opinions and making her own decisions at an early age. Circumstances in her teens forced her not only think for herself but also to trust her instincts. Instinct now told her that Helen would have an easier time opening up to her if she didn't have to look at Nikki.
Crossing to Helen, Nikki relieved her of the tray and set it on the low table beside the couch. She poured them both cups of tea; then stretching out on the sofa, Nikki patted the cushion beside her. "Want to join me?"
Once they were situated, with Nikki resting against the arm of the sofa and Helen resting against Nikki, she said gently, "Do you want to tell me about it?"
Helen sighed heavily and Nikki could feel tension radiating from her body. Nikki tightened her hold, hugging Helen reassuringly. "It's okay, Helen. 'Take all the time you need."
"Ian was my best friend," Helen eventually began and Nikki immediately picked up on her use of the past tense. "We were always close but especially so after Mum died. I adored my brother even when we fought like cat and dog."
She craned her neck so she could look at Nikki. "I didn't realize this until right now, but you're the first person since Ian who could get under my skin so easily."
"Thanks, I guess," Nikki said dryly. "I take it that's a compliment?"
"Well, it definitely means that I love you."
Helen resumed her original position and continued. "Mum had cancer. She was sick for a couple of years - in and out of hospital. Between caring for Mum and his congregation, Dad wasn't around much. Ian and I were virtually inseparable. He was my family."
"How old were you when your mum died?" Nikki's voice was tender.
"I'm so sorry darling. That's a tough age to lose your mother." Nikki stroked the soft hair.
"She was wonderful, Nikki; beautiful and smart. She lit up a room just by being in it." A ghost of a smile played about Helen's lips as she remembered some of the clashes of wills between mother and daughter. "Stubborn too. My father referred to her as 'the champion of lost causes.'"
Sounds just like her daughter, Nikki inwardly smiled.
Helen shifted so she was looking up at Nikki. "She was at the center of our family. While she was alive my dad was a different man. He's always been pretty aloof dour Scot and all that, but when she was around him he was more I don't know " Helen searched for the right word. "Approachable."
"Dad and I haven't been close since I was old enough to have my own opinions. We've been butting heads for years." She laughed without humor. "We get along better when we don't talk. But he was crazy about my mother. Everybody was. And after she died, he focused all his love on Ian."
Nikki could hear the pain in Helen's voice. Her heart went out to Helen. She knew all too well the hurt caused by a parent's rejection.
"Was Ian older or younger than you?" It was impossible to tell from the photograph.
"Younger by four minutes and twenty-one seconds." There was a hint of a smile in Helen's voice and Nikki wondered how many times Helen had lorded her 'seniority' over her brother.
Her twin brother. The pieces were starting to come together for Nikki.
"What happened to Ian, Helen?"
She turned her back to Nikki again and started at the wall before responding, her voice devoid of emotion. "I killed him."
"What?" Nikki couldn't have heard her correctly.
"It happened the night before our twentieth birthday. We were celebrating Ian's team had just won the football league and we went to a pub with friends. He had quite a bit to drink so I insisted on driving home." Helen paused in her narration. This was always the hardest part. Helen's voice trembled as she continued. "A lorry hit us. I walked away without a scratch. He died instantly."
She swallowed hard. "The lorry driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. I tried to get out of the way as soon as I saw him but he hit us nearly head on." On the verge of tears, she added, "my father has never forgiven me. If Ian had been driving, he would still be alive."
And you probably wouldn't. Much as she felt Helen's anguish over the accident Nikki was relieved at its outcome. She did not want to think about her life without Helen Stewart being part of it.
"Oh darling." At the compassion in Nikki's voice Helen lost it. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she turned in Nikki's arms and buried her face in her neck. For long moments they stayed like that, Nikki offering comfort and Helen drawing strength from her lover.
"That's why I don't celebrate our birthday," Helen mumbled against Nikki's throat.
Nikki tucked a strand of Helen's hair behind her ear. Struggling to find the right words after all her mouth had gotten her into trouble more times than she could count Nikki said gently, "Helen, you know you didn't kill Ian. It was an accident."
She felt the younger woman shake her head stubbornly. Not only was Helen still racked with guilt over her brother's death, she clearly had never forgiven herself.
Nikki tried again. "Helen, if things had turned out differently if it had been you that died in that accident instead of Ian do you think he would stop celebrating your birthday?"
Helen lifted her head to reveal red eyes. Tear tracks streaked her beautiful face. "Have you been talking to Claire?"
"Not since the appeal. Why?"
"She pretty much said the same thing that it was time for me to stop wallowing in my guilt and get on with it. That I had to stop punishing myself for something that wasn't my fault. That if the situation had been reversed I would never have blamed Ian."
Nikki tenderly wiped away a tear. "Well?
"Intellectually I know you're both right. Emotionally it's another story." Helen snuggled deeper in Nikki's arms. To her surprise, she felt calm and content. Examining her feelings, she realized that she felt much better now that she had confided in Nikki. In time maybe she could forgive herself and find a way to cope with her guilt without punishing herself or lashing out.
Nikki kissed the top of Helen's head and they stayed like that, locked in each other's arms without talking, for some time. Eventually, Helen spoke. "Our tea's cold. So much for getting warm."
Actually Nikki was feeling quite warm with Helen pressed against her so close that they were almost wearing the same jumper. She touched Helen's nose with her own, her lips inches from Helen's. "There are other options," she said suggestively.
Her burden considerably lighter since she'd confided in her lover, Helen's body was now charged with sexual electricity. She smiled before capturing Nikki's lips in a searing kiss. When they parted Nikki winked at her. "I think you mentioned a bath earlier. Care to join me?"
Their lovemaking had been passionate and intense. What had begun as a gentle affirmation of love had quickly turned into a delightful carnal exploration that had stretched out for over an hour.
Panting heavily, her mouth dry, Nikki looked over at Helen in admiration.
"Where'd you learn that particular move, Miss Stewart?"
Helen blushed and looked away. Nikki would have none of it. She gently turned Helen's face back towards hers.
"You were incredible, Helen," Nikki whispered, dropping soft kisses around Helen's mouth. "Come on, give."
"Okay. I read it in a book," she said shyly.
"A book?" Nikki was incredulous.
Now Helen's face was beet-red.
"And the name of this book is ." Nikki wheedled.
Helen shook her head 'no'. "I'm not telling."
"Come on Helen. Tell me. You know I have ways of getting the information out of you."
Nikki had discovered that Helen was ticklish, so much so, that she would be squirming and giggling uncontrollably within seconds of Nikki touching her. Leaning over Helen menacingly she said, "Out with it."
"Okay, okay. It's called 'Lesbian Sex Tips.'" Helen refused to look at Nikki but she could feel the bed shaking so she knew her lover was laughing.
"Don't you dare laugh at me!" she admonished. "Especially since you've been the beneficiary of a couple of those tips for the past half hour."
"Point taken." Nikki pulled her close for a kiss, their tongues dancing, each fighting for control of the kiss. When they parted, her lips inches from Helen's Nikki asked, "Learn anything else from that book you'd like to show me?"
It was still raining when Nikki woke. Helen's side of the bed was empty. She rolled over and squinted at the clock. Half past seven she'd been asleep a little over two hours. Stretching, Nikki yawned widely, her muscles protesting as she rolled out of bed and grabbed her clothes.
She found Helen in the kitchen tearing lettuce into a clear bowl. "Hey there gorgeous," Helen's whole face lit up when she saw Nikki. "I thought you might be hungry so I'm fixing a special Scottish dinner for us."
"Not Haggis." The words were out of Nikki's mouth before she thought.
"No, not Haggis. It's amazing just how difficult it is to find a proper sheep's stomach in London." Her eyes were dancing and her tone teasing. "We're having Rumbledethumps, salad and salmon."
Rumble de what? Nikii was afraid to ask. Delicious smells were coming from the oven and the prospect of salad and salmon sounded fabulous to Nikki. As for the rumbledy thinga majig, well she'd find some way to deal with it when the time came.
"I didn't know you cooked," Nikki admitted, popping a piece of carrot in her mouth.
Helen shot her an arch look. "Who do you think did most of the cooking after my mum died?" Adding chopped tomatoes and carrots to the salad, she said, "I'll admit I've got way too comfortable ordering takeway most week nights but since I'm not currently working, home cooking it is."
Nikki snagged another carrot. "Anything I can do to help?"
"How 'bout setting the table? Dishes and glasses are in the cabinet over there," Helen gestured with her head. "The utensils are in the drawer next to the stove and there's a bottle of wine in the fridge."
"Anything for you Miss," she drawled teasingly. Depositing a soft kiss on Helen's full lips, Nikki set about her assigned task. The wine, she was pleased to note, was from an Australian vineyard whose label she recognized. She was pouring them each a glass just as Helen emerged from the kitchen with the food.
Rumbledethumps turned out to be the Scottish equivilant to bubble 'n squeak. Nikki enjoyed everything so much that she had double portions. The awkwardness that had sprung up following Helen's tirade was gone; their familiar closeness had returned and they chatted easily during the meal.
Polishing off a second helping of oatmeal gingerbread, Nikki remarked, "Excellent meal Helen. If I keep eating like this though I'm going to get huge."
Helen looked her up and down critically. Nikki Wade was a beautiful woman. Hours in the prison gym had honed her body to perfection but she currently was too thin in Helen's opinion. "I don't think there's any danger of that happening sweetheart."
Taking a sip of wine, she settled back in her chair. "Will James and Stephen still be in London Saturday?"
The question caught Nikki off guard. "I think so. Why?"
"Well I thought you might like to have some of your friends at the party. Do you think they would come if I invited them? Trisha too if she doesn't have to work."
Nikki was floored, both that the party was still on and that Helen wanted to invite her friends. "You mean you didn't call it off?"
"No. Claire's right. It's too late to cancel and besides, it's time I faced it. Especially since I don't have to face it alone." She smiled shyly at Nikki.
"No, you don't," Nikki said, capturing her hand and squeezing. Helen was looking at her with an endearingly soppy expression and Nikki suspected that her own features reflected Helen's. They sat like that for a few minutes just studying at each other until Helen broke the silence.
"Can I get you anything else?"
Images of a naked Helen draped across the table sprang to mind. "No thanks. I'm good."
"So," Helen prodded, back to her original question. "Would they come?"
"Yeah, I think so. Even if Trish has to work, she can probably get away for a little while."
Nikki cocked her head, a bemused expression on her face. "You know, you're the only person I've ever known who actually invited people to her surprise birthday party."
Helen laughed. "Well, it's not a surprise anymore. Unless you count the fact that I plan to introduce you to everyone as my partner. That may startle a few of my friends."
Once again Nikki was gobsmacked. She'd never imagined that Helen could be so matter-of-fact discussing her sexuality. Especially when one considered the way Helen had denied it for so long.
"You're amzing, do you know that?" Nikki smiled affectionately at her. "Are you really as comfortable with this coming out thing as you seem?"
Helen grinned. "Probably not. But sweetheart, the only reason I haven't come out already is because I couldn't do it while you were at Larkhall. It's not like I could announce to the world that I'd discovered my true sexuality and fallen in love with an inmate under my care. And I certainly didn't want my well meaning friends to start setting me up with eligible lesbians."
Nikki was horrifed. Picturing Helen with other men had been bad enough but the idea of her with another woman it didn't bear thinking about. Wanting to reinforce her claim and incredibly aroused by the way Helen had been looking at her earlier Nikki stood up and held out her arms.
"Dance with me?"
Helen was amused. "In case you hadn't noticed, there's no music."
They danced to the music of Lena Horne and both felt that the lyrics she was singing were written especially for them. When the song ended, dishes forgotten, Helen led Nikki back to the bedroom. After all there were dozens of 'tips' she couldn't wait to share with Nikki.
The next five days were a blur. They had tea with Monica, dinner with Stephen and James before they returned to Spain, and lunch with Claire Walker and her partner Gillian Spencer, a novelist. Nikki bit back the urge to shout 'I knew it' when introduced to the striking brunette. She suspected that Claire was also a lesbian the first time she met with the solicitor. She had even been suspicious of her relationship with Helen despite Helen's assurance that they were just good friends.
The 'surprise' birthday party was a rousing success. Except for a few tense moments when one guest's mouth literally dropped open at Helen's introduction of Nikki as 'ma bird' (more because of the cop-killing thing than the lesbian thing, they suspected), her friends appeared to take the news in their stride. Despite some initial nervousness, Helen releaxed and really enjoyed herself. Liquor flowed freely and they staggered back to Helen's in the wee hours of the morning, arms full of joke presents, giggling like schoolgirls.
In between socializing Helen went on two job interviews, both in the private sector, but she seemed in no hurry to go back to work. She had been living with an odd combination of misery and joy for far too long and for the first time in months she was happy and relaxed, enjoying her free time and content to spend it with Nikki.
Nikki meanwhile found a place to live. Her flat, located above a bookstore owned by Stephen and James, was about twenty minutes from Helen's. They briefly discussed Nikki moving in with Helen but neither woman wanted to jeopardize their growing closeness by moving too fast. When the time was right, they agreed that they would select a place together. Having separate residences made little difference in the amount of time they spent together. They hadn't been apart one night since Nikki's release.
"So what d'ya think?" Nikki asked Helen around a nail in her mouth as she positioned a framed watercolor against the lounge wall.
Helen regarded the proposed location. "It needs to go more to the left." She was sitting on the floor putting together a bookcase, a task Nikki had delegated to her due to her experience assembling flat-pack furniture.
The painting now in place, Nikki stepped back to admire it.
"Looks good," Helen commented, scrambling to her feet. "This is done," she said indicating her project. "Where does it go?"
"Well I was thinking under here," Nikki replied, moving the furniture into place beneath the painting she just hung. "Okay?"
Helen nodded approvingly. Nikki passed her a box of books and together they began filling the shelves.
The flat was small, less than 600 square feet. It had an open floor plan combining kitchen, lounge and dining area. A small bathroom and bedroom barely large enough to fit a double bed completed the layout. Still, as Nikki remarked, it was palatial compared to her most recent address.
Although the flat came furnished, Nikki had added dozens of personal touches including new slipcovers for the sofa and easy chair and new lamps. She had replaced the mattress and splurged on the highest count cotton sheets and the softest duvet she could find for the bed. A small dining table and four restored chairs with new seat cushions rested on the colorful area rug Nikki and Helen had chosen together the day before.
Reaching into the box, Nikki retrieved the last book and placed it on the shelf. "That's done."
"Not quite," Helen corrected. "It's missing something." She disappeared into the bedroom, returning in a moment with a brand new copy of 'Sophie's World' which she handed to Nikki.
"Hopefully this one won't go missing."
Nikki smiled at the comment. Her two previous copies, both gifts from Helen, were casualties of Larkhall. The first was destroyed in a fire deliberately set in her cell. Its replacement was confiscated by Jim Fenner days before her hearing.
Opening the book, Nikki was both touched and amused at the inscription. 'Third time's the charm. Love, Hxxxx.'
She pulled Helen into a tight hug. "Thank you," she breathed against her ear, feeling absurdly close to tears remembering the other intangible gifts Helen had given her during her time at Larkhall courtesy; respect; empathy; trust; friendship, and eventually the most precious gift of all her love.
Helen stepped back and regarded the cozy room. "It's lovely Nikki."
Nikki looked at Helen appreciatively. She was in jeans and bare feet, with smudges of white paint on her toes, remnants of the freshly painted kitchen cabinets. She'd filched Nikki's green shirt, one of the few Larkhall garments Nikki still owned, and it dwarfed her, making her look more petite than usual. Her casual appearance was light-years removed from her wing governor attire but Nikki found her just as sexy in her present garb as she did in the power suits Helen used to wear.
Nikki took it all in the room and Helen. "Very nice," she commented.
Helen cocked her head, absentmindedly tucking her hair behind one ear. "Now what?"
"I think a reward is in order for all your hard work," the dark-haired woman replied pulling Helen back into her arms.
"What form will this reward take?" Helen asked coyly.
Nikki pretended to ponder the question. "Well, I thought maybe we could check out the new mattress . after we finish up in here. Of course we will have to make the bed first."
Helen pulled away in mock outrage. "I knew it. You just want more work out of me."
Nikki grinned cheekily. "Work first. Play later." She gestured to a couple of boxes. "We have just enough time to unpack these, make the bed and grab a shower before we need to leave for Hampstead. Kit's expecting us around six."
Kit was Katherine Wade, Nikki's aunt by marriage. From the little Nikki had told Helen about Kit, it seemed incongruous that she owned a home in Hampstead. Kit was a renowned photographer who traveled nine months out of the year. In addition to that house she also had homes in Japan, Switzerland, France and Italy.
Kit was the widow of Nikki's Uncle Rupert, her father's older brother. Their marriage (she was 23 and he was almost 50) had been a huge family scandal. Uncle Rupert said he'd fallen in love with his bride within a day of meeting her. For Nikki, it was love at first sight. Kit too was smitten with the precocious eight-year-old. She attended her school functions, took her on trips, exposed her to new experiences and encouraged her to think for herself. When Nikki came out, unlike the majority of Nikki's family she did not condemn Nikki. Neither did she attempt to convince her that her attraction to women was just a teenage phase that she would outgrow.
After Nikki's expulsion from public school, Kit and Uncle Rupert took her in when her parents refused to let her return home. She stayed with them long enough to complete her secondary education, declining their offer to send her to university; determined to succeed on her own.
Although Nikki stubbornly refused to see Kit while in prison, she kept up a sporadic correspondence with her. Kit had been on assignment in the Middle East at the time of the appeal, but returned to England the minute the good news reached her. Nikki had seen her earlier in the week while Helen was at one of her interviews but tonight would be the first opportunity for Kit and Helen to get to know one another.
Emboldened by Helen's revelations regarding her family, Nikki had finally shared with her some of the details of her family's rejection. Henry and Sofia Wade, according to their daughter, were the quintessential middle class couple. Nikki was born when her older brother Anthony was eight and he never quite got over losing his status as the only child so the siblings were never very close.
Nikki and her father, a career naval officer, were close during her childhood but he was frequently absent for long periods of time. The constant in the children's lives was their mother and Nikki described their relationship as 'oil and water'. Sofia, on the other hand, doted on Anthony. In her eyes he could do no wrong.
After producing the requisite two children, Nikki's mother resumed her life as a gin and bridge navy wife. The children had au pairs growing up but as soon as they were old enough they were sent off to boarding school. Anthony attended Harrow and Nikki was sent to an all girls school in Brighton.
"Holidays, Mum would trot us out whenever she wanted to impress one of her friends," Nikki told Helen. "Otherwise we were pretty much on our own."
Nikki's childhood, she described as 'good.' Between her father, and Kit and Uncle Rupert, she was well-traveled, spending significant time in Europe, Australia and the United States before her fourteenth birthday. With the onset of adolescence, she had found herself being strongly attracted to other girls, but she kept a low profile, refusing to let herself get involved with any of her schoolmates. That all changed when Pamela Rhys-Davis transferred to Nikki's school.
"I'd had feelings for other girls before," she said to Helen, "but never acted on any of them. But with Pam it was different. I couldn't stop thinking about her. In my eyes she was the perfect girl."
Though nearly the same age, Pam was a year ahead of Nikki at school and could have been the model for Sleeping Beauty. Her hair, the color of corn silk, fell in waves to her waist and she had sparkling blue eyes and dimples in both cheeks when she smiled. She also had an infectious personality. She was soon one of the most popular girls in school.
Nikki played Romeo to Pam's Juliet in the school production and after that the two girls were together constantly. The more time they spent together, the more difficult it was for Nikki to fight her growing attraction to Pam.
"I never in a million years thought she could feel anything for me but friendship," Nikki told Helen. "But during our holiday break from school things changed."
Sixteen-year-old Nikki stretched out on the sand and looked appreciatively at the sparkling blue water of the Mediterranean. She'd been delighted when her mother had given her permission to go with Pam and her family to Greece during the holidays. Her social climbing mother was thrilled at the friendship that had developed between Nikki and the daughter of a peer. Pam's father was a Member of Parliament and reputed to be the frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister.
A dripping wet Pam, clad in a tiny yellow bikini that sent Nikki's heart pounding every time she looked at her, plopped down on the towel beside her. "Having a good time?" she asked.
"Of course." Pam's parents had taken a villa right on the water complete with a houseful of servants. As impressed as Nikki was with her luxurious surroundings they were merely icing on the cake to time alone with Pam.
"So," Pam began, vigorously toweling her hair, "Mom and Dad are going out tonight and we're going to have the house to ourselves. Anything special you would like to do?" She smiled flirtatiously at Nikki who suddenly seemed to forget how to breathe.
"Whatever you want to do is fine with me," Nikki managed.
"Would it be okay if we just stayed in?"
Are you kidding? Since their arrival four days earlier, their days and nights had been a flurry of activities. Nikki's heart leapt at the prospect of an entire evening alone with the object of her affection. "That'd be great," she stammered.
Pam beamed at her. "Then consider it settled. I'll ask Elena to make mousakka for us and maybe .." she dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, " we can sneak some ouzo."
Hours later found the two teens stretched out on the floor of the library playing a game of truth or dare. Beside them was a half empty bottle of ouzo.
"Truth or dare." Pam said. "Have you ever gone all the way with a boy?"
Nikki smiled at the irony of that question. She had long ago concluded that boys were definitely not her flavor. The likelihood of her ever going 'all the way' with a boy was slim to none. "No," she stated emphatically.
Pam regarded her closely for a moment, and then asked, "What about with a girl?"
Nikki was momentarily stunned by the question. "It's my turn," she protested.
Pam ignored her. "Come on Nikki, answer the question."
Pam had scooted closer to Nikki and now the two girls were separated by mere inches. Pam was staring intently at Nikki, waiting for her answer. Time seemed to stand still.
"I'm a virgin," Nikki finally admitted.
"But have you ever wanted to go all the way with a girl?" Slowly, almost imperceptibly she leaned her head towards Nikki. Their lips met briefly then Pam pulled away. "Sorry. I hope I didn't
" but the rest of what she was going to say was lost as Nikki pulled her into her arms. Their lips met again. This time the kiss quickly became passionate as Pam's tongue danced in Nikki's mouth.
When they finally came up for air, Pam grinned at her. "I've wanted to do that for months."
"You're kidding?" Nikki could not believe her ears. She was positive Pam was straight. Pam always seemed to have a stable of boys chasing after her. In recent months, she'd been regularly dating Michael Powell, the son of one of her father's political colleagues.
Nikki detested Michael. He was tall, blond, and from her encounters with him, in Nikki's opinion, very shallow. In his third year at Oxford University, he was also arrogant beyond belief. He was everything she hated in a person, male or female someone who used people and family connections instead of his own abilities to get ahead.
"I'm an equal opportunity kind of girl," she said, capturing Nikki's lips again.
That night and every night for the remainder of the holiday Pam sneaked into Nikki's room after everyone was asleep. When they returned to school, the girls were inseparable. Their obvious intimacy fueled gossip and speculation but nothing would probably have come of it but for Nikki's fierce jealousy.
After the Greece trip Pam continued to see Michael. Pam preferred to keep her sexuality quiet because the most influential forces in her life, her parents and the political world her father thrived in, would not accept her otherwise.
She insisted to Nikki that it didn't mean anything and that she only cared about Nikki, but as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, Nikki became angry at Pam for not breaking it off with him. She also began to suspect that Pam was toying with her; that she was not as committed to their relationship as Nikki was but she was so besotted with the older girl that she made excuses for her.
Nikki was weeks away from her seventeenth birthday when her world fell apart. The term was more than half over and Nikki was in her room waiting for Pam to return after the weekend when Emily Blair, who had been Nikki's main competition for the lead in the school play, came into the room without knocking.
Annoyed, Nikki looked up from the book she was reading. "Forget how to knock, Blair?"
Ignoring the question, Emily sauntered over to the bed, a copy of the Daily Mirror in one hand. "Thought you might like to see this, considering how close you and Pamela are."
"What are you talking about?"
She took the proffered newspaper and her eyes immediately zeroed in on two prominent photographs of Pam and Michael Powell, taken after a polo match. In the first, Powell was stripped to the waist, having just taken off his shirt and Pam was standing next to him, holding out a dry shirt, gazing at him adoringly. In the second, the photographer had snapped them in a tight embrace. Nikki could almost see Powell's tongue down Pam's throat. Underneath the photos the caption read 'Pamela Rhys-Davis and Michael Powell celebrate his team's victory. Wedding bells in their future?'
Nikki immediately saw red but she refused to react while Emily was in the room. Tossing the paper back at the other girl she said, "Nice pictures. Was their something else you wanted?"
Not getting the reaction she'd hoped for, Emily pouted and flounced from the room. As soon as she'd gone, Nikki exploded, slamming her fist into the wall. She felt immediate pain on impact.
Fuck! Probably broke my soddin' hand.
Pam walked in just as Nikki grabbed for her hand, wincing in pain and muttering curses under her breath.
"What's wrong? Do something to your hand?" She was at Nikki's side immediately, reaching for her, but Nikki pushed her away.
"I don't fucking believe you," she snapped.
"What do you mean?" Pam was all innocence.
"You're my girl." Nikki shouted. "What game are you playing?" She shoved the newspaper at Pam who reached for it with her left hand. That was when Nikki saw it the sparkle on Pam's ring finger.
"What the hell is this?" Nikki demanded furiously, grabbing at her hand and pointing to the sapphire.
Pam ducked her head. "Nikki, it's not what you think."
"I think it's an engagement ring." Nikki's voice dripped with sarcasm.
Pam pulled her hand away. "No. It's not."
"Did he give it to you?"
"Yes. But, Nik, I'm just doing this to help my dad out. You know he's having a rough time right now in the polls and the media love the idea of Michael and me as a couple. Dad will probably jump several points from this."
"You fucking hypocrite." Nikki's hand was throbbing and she was pretty sure she had broken it.
"Nikki," Pam tried to put her arms around Nikki who pushed her away. "You know I care for you. But I can't announce to the world that I'm in love with another girl."
Nikki saw red at that statement. As far as she was concerned, being a lesbian was part of her and not something she would ever deny. She grabbed Pam and pulled her into her arms, kissing her ruthlessly, wanting to demonstrate once and for all that she and Pam belonged together.
Unfortunately for them both, Emily Blair chose just that moment to come back into the room.
"Bottom line after all the dust cleared is that I got kicked out of school," Nikki said to Helen. "I refused to lie about being a dyke." She had indeed broken her hand, a fact she omitted telling Helen. What was it about her hand and the women that she loved anyway? When she'd thought Helen was two-timing her with Dominic she accidentally stabbed herself in the very same hand with a garden tool.
"What happened to Pam?" Helen asked gently.
"Nothing," Nikki said flatly, wiping away a stray tear. Despite her best efforts, she hadn't been able to keep the tears at bay.
"I got blamed for seducing her. She didn't contradict it even though it was the other way 'round. I never saw her again. She eventually did end up marrying Powell serves her right being stuck with the name Pamela Powell."
They were sitting side by side on the sofa, Nikki's hand in Helen's. Helen gave her a squeeze and Nikki continued, wanting to get it all over and done with.
"My mother blew up. She hadn't been a practicing Catholic for years, but the first thing she threw at me when I came in was the church and how being a lesbian was the same as being a deviant; I was going straight to Hell; the whole nine yards. We had a huge row and then she threw me out." Nikki paused, amazed how after all this time she could still feel the pain of her mother's rejection. "My dad was at sea. I'd hoped that when he got home, he might let me come back but it never happened."
Helen had been watching Nikki intently during her narrative. For a brief moment she saw a glimpse of the broken-hearted and bewildered teen Nikki had been but then Nikki's mask was firmly back in place. She attempted a smile as she said, "I haven't seen either of my parents since. My brother's married and has two kids, one of which I've never even laid eyes on. Being a dyke could be catching you know." She laughed without humor and Helen's heart nearly broke.
Earlier in the week after an interview, while passing a jewelry store, something in the window caught Helen's eye. Acting on impulse, something she rarely did, she'd gone in. When she'd come out again thirty minutes later, she had a gift for Nikki. Her lover wore very little jewelry a watch and a pinkie ring on her right hand. Helen thought it might be a bit presumptuous to buy something for the ring finger of Nikki's left hand this early in their relationship so she decided on a pinkie ring instead. When she left the store with the gift wrapped box, she had dropped it in her briefcase, deciding to save it for when she thought the time was right.
Now, Helen decided, the time couldn't be more right. Excusing herself, she slipped from the room. Nikki hardly noticed; she was still busy trying to compose herself.
When Helen returned, she sat down beside Nikki on the couch and handed her the box.
"What's this then?" Nikki said. "You're the one with the birthday tomorrow, not me."
"Open it," Helen urged.
Mystified, Nikki tore into the wrapping, revealing a ring box. She looked up expectantly at Helen.
"Sweetheart, I'm not very good at this soppy stuff either," Helen said. "But I don't want you to ever doubt my commitment to you. I've given you my heart and this is something tangible so that you'll know that it's yours forever."
Nikki opened the box. Inside was a white gold circle of cut out heart shapes, the hearts alternating right side up and upside down around the ring. She felt tightness in her chest and warmth suffuse her body.
"Helen. It's gorgeous. It's the most beautiful ring I've ever seen." Nikki was once again near tears, touched by Helen's show of affection. She held out her left hand. "Will you put it on for me?" Once Helen had complied, she kissed her.
"Thank you, darling. I'll never take it off."
Helen was unusually quiet during the commute to Hampstead. She was nervous about meeting Kit, who Nikki described as the only person who 'gave a damn about me' when it seemed like the world had turned against her nineteen years earlier.
Nikki, too, was a little apprehensive about the evening. Kit and Trisha had always got along quite well and her aunt had been disappointed to learn that the break up was permanent. Her normally taciturn niece had been effusive in her descriptions of the new woman in her life, piquing Kit's curiosity. Kit had insisted that the two come for dinner so she could get to know Helen. As the train got closer to Hampstead Nikki was wondering if she'd said way too much.
When they exited the underground Nikki asked, "Fancy a walk? We're early."
Helen looked at her curiously.
"I thought we might pick up some flowers. Kit's quite the connoisseur so I wouldn't presume to bring wine."
They spent quite a bit of time in the florist shop. The salesgirl clearly was flirting with Nikki who seemed to enjoy the attention. Helen, who had never thought of herself as the jealous type before, was ready to scratch the girl's eyes out by the time Nikki had paid for her selection.
Outside, Nikki tried to strike up a conversation but it was pretty one-sided. It soon became apparent to Nikki that Helen was upset.
"Nothing." Helen hated the clipped way her voice sounded; hated the way she was feeling.
Nikki was puzzled. Helen had been fine until the florist shop. The girl in the shop had definitely been on the pull, blatantly flirting with Nikki, something that had happened frequently to her before she went to prison. She'd even flirted back a bit it was nice to know she still had it.
"Obviously something's bothering you. What is it?"
Helen declined to answer and Nikki could tell from Helen's rigid back that she was angry. Then the penny dropped. Helen was jealous!
Her eyes twinkling, Nikki said casually, "So do you think Kit'll like the flowers?"
"How should I know?"
A smile tugged at Nikki's lips. "The shop girl was awfully helpful, didn't you think?"
Helen stopped dead and looked at her incredulously. "You mean the one that was drooling all over you?"
"I didn't notice."
"Come off it Nikki. You were flirting with her." Helen fought for control, although she was still inwardly seething.
She didn't deny it. "You flirt, Helen."
It was true. Helen was a born flirt, but with her it was a means of communicating, not a lure. Nikki's statement did nothing to soothe Helen's irrational ire. If anything, it actually made her angrier.
Nikki regarded the furious Scotswoman. "Why is it that you're so incredibly beautiful when you're mad?"
Helen refused to be mollified by the compliment. She rolled her eyes and folded her arms.
Nikki reached for Helen, who took a step backwards. "You have no reason to be jealous, you know."
"You seemed awfully interested."
"In the shop, not the girl." It had occurred to her while selecting the flowers that she might enjoy working in a florist shop or a nursery. She'd discovered a love of gardening while at Larkhall and to her surprise, found herself desperately missing it since her release.
The statement took Helen by surprise. "What?" Although Nikki hadn't worked the past week she'd just assumed that when the time came she would resume her job at Chix. Helen examined her feelings and was surprised to discover an almost overwhelming relief that Nikki wouldn't be working with Trisha again. It was absurd, her rational side asserted, but her emotional side which seemed recently to be in charge was rejoicing in the news.
"Yeah, I'm curious. You know, trying to decide 'what I want to be when I grow up'." Nikki again reached for Helen's hand and this time she didn't pull away. "Besides, I am not interested in any girl but you. You know that."
Helen suddenly felt ridiculous. "I'm sorry, Nikki. I never thought I was the jealous type until you came along." She reached out and cupped Nikki's cheek. "I don't like it." And it wasn't even the first time. The green eyed monster had first made its presence known in the library at Larkhall when she'd walked in on Nikki and Caroline kissing.
Nikki nodded in understanding. Her own fierce jealousy, which on occasion was nearly impossible to contain, had caused her self-destruction more than once.
They resumed walking, this time companionably side by side, their hands almost touching. "So, what'd ya think of the idea?" Nikki asked.
"You running a florist shop or a nursery you mean?"
She considered the idea, thinking how ironic it was that Nikki might go into the same business as her former fiancé. Despite the time she'd spent with Sean his knowledge had not rubbed off on her. She didn't know a philodendron from Philadelphia and she was positive that both her thumbs were brown. But then again, maybe she would be a better student with Nikki as her teacher. It certainly had made all the difference in the world in the lovemaking department.
Her own botanical shortcomings aside, she was certainly in favor of Nikki's having a day job. Nikki working nights and Helen working days was not the best schedule to foster a relationship.
"Well, I know you love gardening and you're certainly very good at it. But what about the capitol needed to start a new business?"
Nikki seemed to have thought that through as well, for she did not hesitate in her answer. "I expect between what I'll get for my share of Chix and the flat together with my savings, it shouldn't be an issue. I've already hinted to Trish that I might be moving on so it won't come as a complete surprise to her."
"Well as long as it's not the shop we were just in, I'm in favor."
Nikki grinned at her. "Good."
Kit Wade's home was impressive. Located in a gated neighborhood, the brick house was four stories with a large back yard. Stained glass panels surrounded an impressive oak door and terra cotta pots filled with colorful flowers lined the front walk. In a touch of whimsy, a weathervane in the shape of a longhorn topped the cupola on the roof. At Nikki's knock, the door opened to reveal a plump, smiling woman in her mid-sixties that Nikki greeted as Aggie before being enveloped in a tight hug. She'd barely emerged from the embrace when a small tri-colored bundle of fur launched itself at her.
"Easy, Lucy, easy," Nikki said, laughing as she tried in vain to avoid an eager pink tongue. "I've missed you too." Ruffling the dog's fur affectionately, Nikki tucked her under one arm and ushered Helen inside. Helen caught a glimpse of a bright entry hall lined with dozens of photographs before they were joined by Nikki's aunt.
Kit Wade was unlike anything that Helen had imagined. For starters, she was much younger than Helen had expected, barely fifty. For another, she was an American, something Nikki had neglected to mention. She was about Nikki's height with burnished copper hair that fell in a riot of loose curls to her shoulders. Her eyes were piercing blue and if you looked closely, you could see a dusting of freckles decorating her nose. She was boyishly slim, a woman one would describe as "attractive" rather than beautiful.
After giving Helen a quick tour of the house, they settled in the sitting room for drinks and appetizers. The room, though relatively small, had high ceilings and was decorated in yellows and blues, evoking a cozy feeling.
Ten minutes after meeting Kit Helen understood how Nikki's uncle fell so quickly in love. The woman was mesmerizing; easily one of the most charismatic women she had ever met. Helen was enthralled with Kit's accent. She had spent the first 23 years of life in Texas and still retained her distinctive southern twang.
"We're having a rather plain meal, I'm afraid," Kit said to Helen. "I hope you don't mind but it's one of Nikki's favorites Texas chili and corn bread.
Looking at her niece knowingly she said, "Did y'all make your usual trek by Admiral Boom's house on the way in?" The house she referred to, a few blocks from her own home had been used in the Disney film Mary Poppins. Nikki had in fact pointed it out to Helen on their way from the florist.
"How'd you know that?" Nikki demanded from her chair beside the fireplace. Lucy, reunited with one of her favorite humans, had monopolized Nikki, wanting to reassure her of her undying affection, before finally curling up in her lap to nap.
"PUH LEASE. As if you haven't gone by that house every time you've come to Hampstead since you were ten." Turning to Helen, she asked, "Did she tell you about her obsession with Mary Poppins?" When Helen shook her head 'no' she elaborated. "Nikki adored Mary Poppins as a child. I took her to the states with me the summer after Rupert and I were married. While we were there we visited Disney World where Mary and Nikki had breakfast together." She frowned thoughtfully. "I think I have some picture of the occasion somewhere."
Nikki could have cheerfully strangled her. She couldn't decide what was more embarrassing -- to have her childish love of the British nanny trotted out in conversation with Helen, or the fact that she had specifically taken Helen out of their way to see the house again. Silently she thanked providence that Kit had no bare butt pictures of her on a sheepskin to share, while muttering a prayer that the Disney photos couldn't be located during their visit.
"Nikki owned every book written on the subject. We saw the movie at least a dozen times. You wore out two videotapes," she teased her niece. "When we got home and learned that my neighbor's house was in the movie, well that was the icing on the cake."
Helen was looking at her almost as if she'd suddenly sprouted two heads. It was nearly impossible for her to reconcile this Mary Poppins groupie Kit was describing with the tough as nails inmate at Larkhall. Fascinated with this glimpse of her lover as a child, she encouraged Kit to share more stories and Kit was happy to oblige.
Several anecdotes later, Nikki decided that a change of subject was in order. Interrupting Kit's narration, she said, "Why don't you tell Helen about being starkers when you met my father for the first time?"
At Helen's inquiring look, Kit laughed. "The stuff of family legends, I'm afraid. Rupert and I were in Rome at the family flat. We'd only recently been married so suffice it to say that when I got up to use the john I wasn't wearing anything. I also wasn't expecting to bump into my new brother-in-law in the hallway."
"Dad was on leave and was staying at the flat," Nikki interjected. "Neither he or Uncle Rupert knew the other was there."
"It was certainly a memorable introduction," Kit said drolly.
"Yeah, from Dad's descriptions Tony couldn't wait to meet you." Nikki stroked Lucy's soft fur. "He was disappointed that you were wearing clothes as I recall."
"Don't be ridiculous. He couldn't have been more then fourteen."
"He was almost sixteen," Nikki responded, adding under her breath, "and a perv since he was twelve."
Aggie appeared in the door. "You ladies need anything?"
When all three indicated they were fine, she appraised Nikki critically. "You could use some fattening up, young lady. You're much too thin." She fixed her attention on Lucy, now awake, who was alternating between eyeing the appetizers on the side table and shooting pleading looks at Nikki as if to say 'I'm starving'.
Wagging her finger sternly, she warned, "You better not be feeding that dog my good food. She doesn't need any more meat on her bones."
She spoke with the familiarity of a longtime family retainer. Nikki accepted the chastisement meekly, recognizing it for what it was -- an expression of Aggie's affection.
"Well if you expect me to eat more than one helping of chili tonight, you had better tell me that Kit made it and not you," she teased.
Aggie sniffed in disgust. "Not likely. Even after more than twenty-five years she won't trust me with the recipe. I hope you like spicy food, Miss," she said, turning to Helen. If not, I have plenty of bicarbonate. Eat up; dinner will be served in twenty minutes and if you're not on time, I'll toss it out." With that pronouncement she exited the room.
Nikki shook her head, laughing. "I see some things haven't changed."
"Not in the least," her aunt agreed. "Aggie was part of the package when I married Rupert," she explained to Helen.' "She was in charge then and she's still in charge. I get ma licks in though like not giving her ma chili recipe. It drives her mad."
Lucy barked as if in agreement.
"She needs to go for a W A L K," Kit said. "Would you mind Nikki? It will give Helen and me a chance to get better acquainted."
Startled, Nikki's looked up and her heart sank at her aunt's expression. She and Trisha had been together so long that she'd almost forgotten Kit's penchant for giving potential girlfriends the third degree. She was reluctant to leave them alone but her aunt had neatly trapped her.
Okay, this is going to be the shortest walk in history.
"Lucy, want to go out?"
The little spaniel showed her enthusiasm by dancing about on her hind legs yelping ecstatically. In her excitement she bumped into a table, knocking over several framed photographs. Both Helen and Nikki reached to straighten them, bumping heads in the process.
"Sorry. Sorry," Helen said, rocking back on her heels.
"My fault," Nikki said, rubbing her forehead. "Are you okay?"
"It would take more than that to hurt this hard head." Helen bent down to retrieve one of the frames that had fallen to the floor, a black and white picture of a raven haired adolescent posing proudly on the deck of a small sailboat.
"Is this you?" Helen asked, handing the photograph to Nikki.
A deep, deep, sorrow came over Nikki remembering a time in her life when she skimmed across blue waters in her sailboat, a time before her estrangement from her parents and brother. A combination of vulnerability and anger flickered across her face and then was gone. "Yes," she said, her voice so low Helen could barely hear her. Determined to ignore the conflicting emotions triggered by the photograph and the memories it evoked, she got to her feet. "Come on Lucy, let's go."
Helen watched her go, her face a mask of concern. Trying to lighten the mood, Kit reached for the photograph. "I took this picture the year Nikki turned twelve. The boat was a gift from her father. She practically lived on the water that summer."
Helen was examining the other family photographs on the table. "I didn't know Nikki played football."
Kit peered over her shoulder. "That's not Nikki. It's Claudia, Tony's daughter. They look enough alike to be twins don't they? I think she was about fourteen then. She's nineteen now."
Helen blinked. The resemblance between Nikki and her niece was uncanny.
"She doesn't talk about her family." Helen said.
"No, she wouldn't." Kit and Sofia had never been close, but the woman's unyielding attitude about her daughter's homosexuality coupled with the methodical way she had gone about obliterating Nikki from their lives infuriated Kit. In the ensuing years since Nikki was summarily tossed out by her parents Kit could not decide what frustrated her more, Sofia's dogmatic rigidity or Henry's impotence and unwillingness to cross his wife.
Kit topped off their wine glasses. "My in-laws are spectacularly narrow-minded. They've chucked off a wonderful daughter because she doesn't fit their idea of what is proper."
"Their loss," Helen said, incensed at the insensitivity of people she would probably never meet. Kit was regarding her intently. From what Nikki had told her about Helen, Nikki was her first female lover. A shrewd judge of character, Kit's many years behind the camera had honed her perceptions and her abilities to pick up the subtlest of signals from her subjects. Twenty minutes with her niece and Helen Stewart was all she needed to conclude that Nikki was gone hook, line, and sinker, for the Scotswoman. A brief conversation earlier when Helen was out of earshot had confirmed it.
"So," Kit had said. "What's the story with you two? Is it serious?"
'It's early days,' flitted through Nikki's mind but then her glance fell on the ring Helen had given her. They still had much to work out but with every day away from Larkhall their bond had strengthened. For the first time they were relaxed with one another and having fun; somewhat amazed at how delightful it was just being together. Both agreed that their past history played a significant part in how they dealt with things but they were committed to each other and to making a life together.
She had smiled at her aunt. "She's the woman I intend to spend the rest of my life with."
'Oh, dear,' was Kit's mental reaction. She had had a long conversation with Trisha about her break-up with Nikki, and Nikki's subsequent involvement with Helen. The last thing Kit wanted for Nikki was a rebound relationship with the potential for heartbreak.
Now, alone with Helen, Kit spoke up. "Helen, one thing you should know about me is that I don't hesitate to speak my mind. I am going to be very blunt. I love my niece and I don't want to see her get hurt again." The charming hostess had vanished; in her place was a woman with the steely demeanor of a Mississippi riverboat gambler.
She sat down on the sofa beside Helen. "You two are so very different and then there's the fact that you used to be her jailer. Are you sure being star-crossed lovers isn't going to lose its glamour in the light of day? Are you serious about this relationship or is this just a lark for you; something different?"
Kit's statements took Helen aback and for a moment she saw red at one more person questioning her commitment to Nikki. Then, looking down at the photograph she still held and recalling the hurt look on Nikki's face when she thought about the family that had abandoned her, she softened. Kit obviously cared deeply for her niece. The questions were not mere invasiveness.
"I can't promise you I won't hurt Nikki," Helen said, striving for complete honesty. Their history together showed an uncanny knack for hurting each other with very little effort, and truth be told Helen shared some of the very concerns Kit had voiced. "But I am dead serious about Nikki. I promise you that I will love her and respect her. I will be there when she needs me." Helen spoke from the heart, adding with a wry grin, "whether she wants me to or not."
Kit studied her intently, considering her words. Nodding in satisfaction she said simply, "You'll do."
"Thank you." Kit seemed sincere in her approval.
Helen tucked her hair behind one ear. "Now it's my turn to be blunt. You obviously adore Nikki. You have money and influence. Where were you during her trial? Why didn't you ever visit her?"
"Fair questions. Rupert and I were in India when Nikki was arrested. He had a stroke which prevented us from traveling. I didn't hear about any of it until after the trial. Rupert died abroad and by the time I returned home, Nikki had already been tried, sentenced, and sent to Larkhall."
Kit swallowed hard like she was processing a boulder, remembering those difficult days. "Once I was back in England I tried to get in touch with Nikki. She absolutely refused to see me. Rupert had left her a small inheritance that I tried to convince her to use on an appeal. Instead, she insisted that the money go to Trisha. The business was struggling following the whole Gossard episode and Nikki was concerned that it might go under."
Typical Nikki, thought Helen. She invariably put the needs of those she cared for above her own.
"No one can persuade Nikki to do anything she does not want to do." Kit shot Helen a level look. "Except you, apparently. I should warn you, don't expect it to last. My niece can be pretty stubborn."
"I hadn't noticed," Helen said deadpan.
They were both laughing when Nikki and Lucy rejoined them.
The words 'did you have a nice walk' died on Helen's lips with one glance at Nikki's face. She had seen that closed look before. Something must have happened.
Kit saw it too. "I'll just check on dinner. Will you excuse me?" Snapping her fingers for Lucy to follow she left them alone.
"What is it? What's happened?" Helen demanded.
"Nothing." Nikki avoided her gaze.
Helen crossed the room to her. Cupping Nikki's chin and forcing Nikki to look at her she said, "Sweetheart, I know that look. Talk to me."
Nikki sighed heavily, tears welling in her brown eyes. "It was a woman on the heath. Lucy and I were walking by the pond when we noticed this little boy trying to get his boat. I waded in to get it for him but by the time I got back to shore his mother showed up. She must have recognized 'the lesbian cop-killer' because she snatched him away before I could even return the boat."
"I'm sorry, Nikki."
"I've paid for my crime. When will people stop treating me like I have the plague?"
"Sweetheart, I know patience is not one of your long suits, but give it time. You're still part of the news cycle right now and people are reacting to a label. No one who knows you thinks of you like that." She gently wiped away a tear. "I hate seeing you hurting."
Nikki's heavy heart lightened at the love and compassion reflected in Helen's face. Pulling her into her arms she hugged her tightly. "Thanks," she whispered against Helen's hair.
"Come and get it before it gets cold!" Aggie's commanding voice bellowed from the other room. Laughing, the two women separated.
"We'd better get a move on," Nikki said as Lucy bounded into the room.
The little dog made a beeline for Helen, jumping on her and barking to be picked up. When she was safely in Helen's arms she nuzzled her neck, licking her in appreciation.
Nikki laughed. "Looks like you're truly part of the family now that Lucy's given you her stamp of approval. "
"And you have mine too," Kit said. She had been watching them unobserved from the doorway. Mentally she added, 'Yes indeed, you'll do.'
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